Celebrating London’s history of cultural diversity


On 15 February we invite you to join our celebration marking the publication of Cultures of London: Legacies of Migration. This special event will showcase the diverse narratives and historical perspectives presented in the book. It will feature insightful talks from contributors and musical performances from Kinetika Bloco, reflecting London's vibrant cultural heritage.

In this blog, co-editors of the book, Charlotte Grant and Alistair Robinson, tell us more about the intricate layers of London's history as seen through the lens of migration. Originating from an undergraduate course, Cultures of London is a collection of concise essays that blend modern migration stories with London's deep migratory past, enriching our understanding of the city's cultural fabric.

Can you tell us about Cultures of London: Legacies of Migration - A Celebration which the Warburg Institute is hosting on 15 February at Senate House?

We’re holding a celebration to mark the recent publication of Cultures of London: Legacies of Migration (Bloomsbury, 2024) on 15 February to share the conversations the book initiates and open them up to the wider public. We’ll hear from three of the book’s contributors: Alastair Bennett (RHUL), Livia Wang (curator of the Van Gogh House London), and Leighan Renaud (Bristol University). We'll also be enjoying some music from Kinetika Bloco, a South London performance group described by BBC Radio 2 as having ‘a unique new British Carnival Sound with a decidedly London edge’, and who draw their musical influences from the Caribbean, Brazil, Africa, and New Orleans. We’re thrilled that the Warburg Institute, itself a migrated institution, is hosting our event in Senate House.

kinetika bloco performers playing brass instruments
Kinetika Bloco performing at Urban Village Fete © Kinetika Bloco

What inspired this book and made you focus on migration in particular?

Cultures of London: Legacies of Migration has a long back history. The book has grown out of an undergraduate course on London’s history of cultural diversity, which we developed at the New College of Humanities, now Northeastern University, London, from 2017 onwards. One important aim of the course, and now the book, is to place the very visible Twentieth Century and contemporary migrations in the context of London’s long history of migration. It is important to us that the stories the book tells about Windrush Era migrants and refugees from Nazi Europe, for example, are read alongside much older as well as more contemporary migration narratives. 

As we worked with our contributors it also became apparent that there was scope to put human migrations alongside other stories of movement: of plants and animals, water, and man-made toxins. This plural understanding of migration means that the book contains chapters on seventeenth-century London’s water supply by Susan Wiseman and nineteenth-century sewage by Naomi Hinds, as well as chapters on human migration from overseas and from within the British Isles. Raymond Williams's 1973 The Country and the City was an early inspiration for how we thought about the relationship between the rural and the urban. One place where this conversation is clearest is in Flora Lisica’s chapter on John Keats and his cross-city migrations at a time when London’s surrounding villages, like Hampstead and Enfield, were developing into suburbs as the city, facilitated by growing transport networks, expanded and absorbed them. 

One important aim of the course, and now the book, is to place the very visible Twentieth Century and contemporary migrations in the context of London’s long history of migration.

The book came together during the years most affected by Covid-19 and this influenced both our focus on the local - many people gave their immediate surroundings more attention - and how we thought about migration. The importance of migrant communities and their contribution to the city became starkly visible during the pandemic. Whilst migration remains a human and political crisis, its cultural effects are increasingly celebrated, including in this book, and in recent work by historians such as Panikos Panayii and David Olusoga, as well as by London’s Migration Museum.

Cultures of London is slightly unusual for an academic collection because it contains short essays, each around 3000 words. Why did you choose to adopt this form for the collection?

It was really important for us to include as many different voices and perspectives as possible because the main theme of this book is the diversity of London. And we were aiming to be accessible. The thirty-three short essays, many of them illustrated, give a series of insights into different types of migration narratives and focus on different kinds of cultural artefacts. Whilst we have academic contributors, we also have writers and curators, and hopefully the book will appeal to a wider public since migration is such an important  - and rich - even if frequently contested, topic.

87 Hackford Road. Photograph by Thomas Parsons © Van Gogh House London 2019

The chapters are snapshots that open windows and doors onto different aspects of the city’s past. The format allows for in-depth looks at particular buildings, objects, artefacts, novels, places, and events. Dan Cruickshank writes on 19 Princelet Street, which was first the home of Huguenot silk weavers, then a Synagogue, and finally the subject of Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair’s 1999 book Rodinsky’s Room. Kent Su writes on the Admonitions Scroll, an ancient Chinese artwork looted during the Boxer Rebellion and later acquired by the British Museum and admired by Ezra Pound. Edmund de Waal writes on the potter Lucie Rie’s house and studio in Albion Mews just north of Hyde Park, and Livia Wang looks at Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Hackford Road SW9.

The book’s essays are divided geographically between Central, North, East, South and West London. Why did you choose to structure the book this way? 

The chapters are organised historically within a geographical structure. Unlike many planned cities, London’s growth has been opportunistic, haphazard, almost organic. Its origins are three distinct settlements - the City, Westminster and Southwark - that have merged together, incorporating the villages around them. Different areas have very different histories. So in part, our structure seeks to reproduce that sense of growth, including four infrastructure chapters - two on stories relating to water and waste - and two on transport: Joe Kerr writes about the London bus, the Routemaster in particular, and Rob Waters about race and the transport network from the 1950s to 1970s.

Unlike many planned cities, London’s growth has been opportunistic, haphazard, almost organic.

The geographical structure of the book reflects its interest in the local, in the ways in which specific migrants and migrant communities have shaped different locales within the city at different times. The section on East London, for example, captures how early modern Shoreditch was associated with Walloons from Northern Europe, how eighteenth-century Spitalfields was home to French Huguenots, and how nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Whitechapel was an epicentre of Jewish community and creativity. Whilst in our West London section, Elizabeth Eger writes about Bluestocking queen Elizabeth Montagu’s encounter with Cherokee visitors from North America, and Peter Maber and Karishma Patel examine Sam Selvon’s Windrush era novel The Lonely Londoners alongside his less well-known short stories set in Notting Hill and Bayswater.

Our geographical structure hopefully grounds the reader, allowing them to read the book in multiple ways, reflecting their own geographies and journeys through the city.  It was important to us that it would be obvious to readers how the historical subjects of each chapter relate to the modern city, to texts people can read, and to places people can visit.

Our geographical structure hopefully grounds the reader, allowing them to read the book in multiple ways, reflecting their own geographies and journeys through the city. 

The essays in the book are incredibly diverse, but many seem to echo each other. Were there any connections between essays or themes that surprised you? 

There were definitely connections that were stronger than we’d expected. Echoes and contrasts unsurprisingly emerge between Ruvani Ranasinha’s essay on Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia and Martin Dines’s essay on two novels by Tim Lott and Bhanu Kapil set in suburban Southhall. Perhaps more surprising was the strong recurring focus on London’s diverse street life from Alistair’s essay on the early modern May Fair; Uttara Natarajan’s account of the Romantic essayist William Hazlitt’s encounter with the Indian juggler, Ramo Samee (see image below); and Oskar Cox Jensen’s brief history of the Mendicity Society, whose ledgers record migrants from all over the Georgian and Victorian globe; to Leighan Renaud’s chapter on Notting Hill Carnival, which takes us up to the present. 

James Green, ‘The Indian Jugglers’ (c. 1814) © Thomas Coulborn & Sons

There is also a dynamic between constraint and liberty, and between repression and possibility, which is still a characteristic of the life of the city. This connects many of the chapters, such as Nicole Aljoe and Savita Maharah’s account of London’s Eighteenth-Century Black communities, Eliza Cubitt’s work on a Lascar barracks in Nineteenth-Century Shadwell, and the potential personal and sexual freedoms explored in Susie Thomas’s account of the characters’ trajectories in Hanan al-Shaykh’s 2001 novel Only in London

Finally, music, an aspect of London’s culture that we had not focused on in the planning stages, emerges as a surprisingly consistent and welcome theme: Markman Ellis writes about musician, man of letters, and grocer, Ignatius Sancho, who composed dance music in addition to letter writing, and Oliver Ayers tells the story of Northview, a small estate off Holloway Road and home during and after the Second World War to a diverse group of musicians brought together through London’s Jazz scene.  

Charlotte Grant is an Associate Professor of English at Northeastern University, London. She has written on eighteenth-century literature and visual culture and has co-edited books on eighteenth-century women’s writing: Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and on the representation of domestic interiors: Imagined Interiors: Representing the Domestic Interior since the Renaissance (V&A Publications, 2006), and edited a collection of botanical writing. 

Alistair Robinson is an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University, London. He is the author of Vagrancy in the Victorian Age: Representing the Wandering Poor in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and is secretary of the Literary London Society.